Magma Mia!

2 minute read
Greg Burke

Rarely could a place have been so inaptly named. High on Mount Etna is a lodge for skiers and hikers called Rifugio Sapienza, or the Wisdom Refuge. Anyone with an ounce of wisdom wouldn’t have built it on Europe’s highest and most active volcano. Etna began blowing July 13, and last week burning lava came within just yards of the refuge and nearby stores.

There are records of the 11,000-ft. volcano blowing its top since classical times. This year’s performance is the most spectacular eruption since 1992, when lava flows threatening the town of Zafferana were diverted by controlled explosions. This time, residents of nearby Catania, a city of 380,000, have been using umbrellas to protect themselves from a constant thin drizzle of ash. The local airport was closed for three days.

The explosions and molten lava have provided spectacular evening entertainment, but they are a real threat to the 6,300 people who live in Nicolosi, a town at 2,300 ft. So far, the lava has stopped about 2.5 miles away. Those who live on Etna seem to like the excitement. “We have a love affair with this volcano and this mountain,” says Nicolosi Mayor Salvatore Moschetto. “Even in the past, when eruptions have ruined some property, we just start over again.”

Etna will too. It rumbles and smokes regularly but is a relatively friendly volcano, giving plenty of warning when it’s about to blow. The damage, however, can still be severe. Since the start of this year’s eruption, lava has destroyed a ski lift and a couple of summer homes, and threatened Rifugio Sapienza. Don’t try to ski there next winter: the slopes will remain too warm to hold enough snow.

Can the lava be stopped? Some 70 bulldozers have been used to build earthen walls to divert lava away from inhabited areas, while planes and helicopters have dropped water to slow its advance. And there’s always prayer. Carmelo Cavallaro, the parish priest of Nicolosi, who led the faithful in seeking divine intercession, says, “Faith can move mountains.” What he should have said: Faith can move mountains that move.

–Reported by Greg Burke

To see a photographic essay on the eruption of Mount Etna, go to

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at